By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Emily Pellman was on the verge of fulfilling her dream of becoming a public school science teacher when the door to getting her own classroom was closed in her face.
Last May, the 24-year-old Pellman was weeks away from graduating from New York University's Steinhardt School of Education, to which the city was paying her tuition in exchange for her promise that she would teach in a city school after graduation. East Side Community High School, where she student-taught, didn't have any vacancies, but she soon landed an interview at Bronx Latin School, a well-regarded middle and high school that opened in 2004. Bronx Latin was looking for a science teacher, and so she prepared a demonstration lesson about neuroscience for her interview, which was scheduled for May 6.
That morning, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein summoned principals to an online conference to tell them that, in an unprecedented response to the city's shrinking budget and escalating costs, the Department of Education was freezing new hiring. The previous year, the city had added nearly 6,000 new teachers, but this year, principals would be restricted to hiring teachers who were already in the system.
"My first thought," says Pellman, "was panic."
The restrictions were more than a response to hard times ahead. They represented a retreat by Klein on a key principle of his school reforms: giving principals more control over who teaches in their classrooms.
Until 2005, senior teachers had the right to "bump" less experienced teachers from their positions, a practice that resulted in a concentration of experienced teachers at high-performing schools in desirable neighborhoods. That year, Mayor Bloomberg negotiated an end to the practice with the United Federation of Teachers, and declared, "We are for the first time giving principals ultimate authority over teacher hiring in their schools. Under this contract, principals will no longer have teachers imposed on them who they do not want."
One consequence of the 2005 contract agreement was the creation of the Absent Teacher Reserve, a holding pen for teachers who had lost their jobs and weren't immediately hired by other schools. Most of the 1,340 teachers currently in the reserve lost their positions when their schools closed, or because budget-shaving principals cut the program in which they taught. Each teacher in the pool is assigned to a school, where some work as substitutes and others do administrative work while they look for new jobs.
The new restrictions don't force principals to hire any particular teacher, but they do constrain their options. Aside from those in charge of charter schools or newly established schools, principals this year were barred from hiring newly minted teachers, or even experienced teachers from other districts. And principals are facing severe consequences if they balk at hiring teachers from the ATR pool: Last month, Klein told them that they would lose any funds budgeted for vacant positions if they didn't fill those positions by the end of October.
For new teachers graduating from the city's highly touted teacher-training programs, meanwhile, the new restrictions were an unforeseen catastrophe. "There was definitely an implicit promise" that students in such programs would get jobs in the city schools, says Jason Blonstein, Pellman's adviser at NYU. In recent years, both the national Teach for America program and the city's own Teaching Fellows program have drawn praise for fast-tracking recent college graduates and career changers into the classroom. These programs try to combat what is known as the "qualification gap" between the teachers at schools in poor neighborhoods and those in wealthier areas by placing very young but highly educated teachers into struggling schools. But this year, graduates of these programs were considered new teachers and were subject to the freeze. Among those locked out of jobs were both brand-new teachers and those with years of experience teaching in other school systems.
Inspired by news accounts of Klein's ambitious school reforms, Christopher Timberlake and Katie Walraven, a young couple living and teaching in southern Virginia, decided to relocate to the city. Both had job offers from New York City schools that were retracted when the freeze went into effect. When the city slightly loosened the restrictions over the summer to allow schools to hire new science teachers, Walraven ultimately got a job offer from the All-City Leadership Secondary School in Bushwick. But by then, it was too late—the pair had moved to the D.C. suburbs, where Timberlake had found a job teaching fourth grade.
Even after the freeze went into effect, Eric Nally, 33, then an education student at Fordham University, thought he would be able to find a job. "A recruiter came and told us very encouragingly that [we should] fill out applications online," he says, to build relationships with principals for when the freeze was lifted. "The office of recruiting continued to espouse the idea that we should continue to pursue schools, visit with principals, all of these things." Nally took the advice to heart and sent out 200 résumés. After getting no responses, he started a blog called "Have Chalk, Will Travel" to pitch himself to school districts. A week into the school year, he, too, landed a job in a suburban D.C. school district and left the city.
Lauren Linkowski actually had a job lined up—or thought she did. After earning a master's degree in education from the University of Pennsylvania, Linkowski landed a job teaching English at M.S.324, a top-rated middle school in Washington Heights. A Westchester native, she was counting down the days until she could move closer to her friends and family.
M.S.324's principal, Janet Heller, had told Linkowski not to leave her job in Philadelphia because New York City's hiring system technically wouldn't open for another two months. But with a commitment from Heller, Linkowski was feeling confident about her prospects. Then, at midday on May 6, the same time that Pellman was walking into Bronx Latin for her interview, Linkowski opened an e-mail from Heller with bad news. The hiring freeze was on, and the deal was off.
"I definitely freaked out for a few minutes," Linkowski said. "I called my mom, and then I was immediately on every job website." She's now living with her parents, substitute teaching in the Chappaqua schools, and teaching an English class to adult students at the College of New Rochelle.
When the freeze hit, Heller says, "I was disappointed, but I did not panic." She had started the hiring process early and had four months before the first day of school to figure out how to navigate the restrictions. When a teacher who had planned to leave decided to stay because she could no longer find part-time work in a city school, Heller's vacancy filled itself.
Had that teacher left, Heller had other options: "I had two other people in the wings who were working in another school who wanted to transfer." Hiring one of them would have left another school with a vacancy—one that would be more difficult to fill if that school didn't have M.S.324's stellar reputation. If the hiring freeze continues, as department officials say is possible, underperforming schools could see their best talent drawn away by more established schools forced to hire within the system.
That's what happened at the Brooklyn secondary school where Ariel Sacks teaches English. (She spoke on the condition that her school not be named.) According to Sacks, teachers attracted to her school's small size and progressive vision filled most of the vacancies this year, but her principal couldn't fill three spots, two of them hard-to-staff math positions. Two weeks into the school year, the city sent three ATRs from a shuttered high school to take over the open classes.
"We were basically forced to take on teachers who themselves couldn't find other jobs," Sacks says. "They didn't choose to be at our school, and our school didn't choose them."
The result, she says, was chaos, as the unprepared teachers floundered and the administration, seeing them as a temporary stopgap, didn't invest time in training them. "The classroom was chaotic, in a way that is not usual even with a lot of our subs," says Sacks. The principal ultimately pulled the ATRs from the lead teacher spots. They're now working as substitutes, and other teachers at the school have reshuffled to cover the teacher-less math classes, which are only just now getting under way for the year.
Heller likewise hasn't been impressed by the quality of teachers in the ATR pool. After reaching out to 20 ATRs who were qualified to fill her empty positions, she says, "I interviewed 12 and wouldn't have hired any one of them. Only two did the interview like a real interview. The rest treated it like a joke deliberately."
The DOE's financial woes, meanwhile, is only expected to worsen in 2010. "The budget is not getting any better next year," Department of Education Chief Operating Officer Photeine Anagnostopoulos said flatly outside a recent City Council education hearing. As the state tries to close a $3 billion budget gap, budget cuts appear inevitable. Governor Paterson has already proposed $223 million in mid-year cuts to the city's schools, but even if the legislature refuses to cut school aid in the middle of the year as it did last year, cuts are likely to appear in schools' 2010–2011 budgets.
The people responsible for figuring out how many new teachers the city needs already predict that next year's teacher job market will look about as grim as this year's did. An early snapshot of the city's data on teacher retention shows that more second- and third-year teachers are staying in the system than in previous years, largely because of the recession, leaving even fewer vacancies for new teachers to fill.
"We anticipate at this point that our needs will be more limited than they have been in past years, except for perhaps this year," says Vicki Bernstein, the department's executive director of recruitment and teacher quality.
Bernstein, who oversees the Teaching Fellows program, says the program will likely admit around 700 fellows next year, the same as this year and half as many as in 2008. As was the case this year, most will be trained to teach special education, the area where the city has traditionally had the most acute need.
Jemina Bernard, the director of Teach for America's New York region, says she's waiting to see the outcome of teachers' contract negotiations, as well as how deep the state budget cuts will be, before deciding how many new teachers TFA will send to New York City.
Much could depend on the outcome of the UFT's latest contract negotiations, which began last month. Teachers, city officials, and labor experts are speculating that the city will try to negotiate a time limit for how long teachers can remain in the ATR pool. The city says the reserve teachers—who are guaranteed a full salary—are costing the system millions of dollars that otherwise could be used to bring in new teachers who principals want to hire. Already, the DOE is pressuring ATRs harder than ever to find jobs, for the first time requiring them to interview at schools with openings in their field and to attend job fairs. Those who don't are subject to the department's disciplinary process. Chancellor Klein has said repeatedly that he would like to see a time limit placed on the hiring process, giving ATRs nine months to a year to find a new position before being terminated.
"The entire ATR situation is the result of a failed management strategy," says Dick Riley, a UFT spokesman. He insists the union is no happier about the ATR situation than the city is: "The DOE was aware that as it closed schools and cut back programs, veteran teachers would become available for new assignments, yet it continued to recruit new teachers. The result has been that some newcomers did not get the jobs they had been led to expect, and many veteran teachers are now working as substitutes."
For now, the city is proceeding with slimmed-down teacher recruitment. In years past, the city sent recruiters around the country to scout for new talent, while ads for the Teaching Fellows program appeared on subways, in newspapers, and on the Internet. Next year, it's likely that the only Teaching Fellows ads you'll see will be online.
The Teaching Fellows program accepts only as many teachers as the system expects to be able to accommodate, and indeed the number of Teaching Fellows who haven't found positions is just 47 out of 700. (Those unplaced teachers are getting extra training, along with $250 a week and no benefits, until the end of this month, when they'll be dropped from the city's payroll.)
Bernard says TFA will likely send a large percentage of its corps members to charter schools, which control their own hiring and so are not affected by the freeze. "I imagine demand will continue to be high on that side," she says.
To say he's concerned about next year is "putting it mildly," says John Ewing, president of Math for America, an alternative certification program whose teachers undergo a year-long training regimen. Though the majority of the program's fellows suffered through the hiring freeze, the few stragglers who didn't have jobs at the end of summer were placed in the ATR pool, an exception the city made because of the fellows' lengthy training. Ewing expects to have 60 new teachers to place next year, and while he hopes the city will exempt math teachers from the hiring freeze, he's not banking on it.
"We pledged to the fellows that we'll do whatever it takes to make sure they don't get left out," he says. "This is a program that's meant to invest money and time and effort into the New York City public schools. But if we can't find jobs for them for whatever reasons, we will find jobs elsewhere."
"Elsewhere" includes the greater metropolitan area, where Ewing said he's quietly spreading the word about Math for America so that next year, other districts will know about his fellows.
"If New York City really wants to have a first-rate school system, then they have to let the first-rate in," says Ewing. "I don't think we're going backwards yet, but I think there's the potential here for slipping backwards very rapidly. That would be a real shame."
Some principals who are looking ahead to next year don't like what they see on the horizon, either. According to Sacks, her principal interviewed nearly 40 members of the ATR pool for three vacancies at the school, but said the interviews were uniformly terrible. If the hiring freeze persists into next year, she says, "I would think that my principal and other principals in that situation are going to recruit more aggressively from other schools."
For Pellman, there was a glimmer of hope in July, when the city lifted the freeze for most science teachers, though not for biology teachers. Pellman got back in touch with Bronx Latin anyway, but the job had already been filled. And so she spends her days working at a Starbucks in midtown Manhattan, doing the same job she did when she was trying to make ends meet as a student.
She remains ready to take over a city classroom the day she's allowed to. Back at the apartment she shares with her fiancé, she keeps a notebook full of ideas about how to gain control over a classroom where the teacher has left in the middle of the year. She also follows along with the city's new standardized science curriculum, imagining what she would be teaching if she had students. And she is making sure her colleagues at Starbucks know that they might have to cover her shifts, "in case I have to jump up and go start teaching," she says.
"I'm trying to stay optimistic and hope that things brighten up," she says, "because some day, they're going to need new teachers again."